Jan. 23, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 9

current issue
archive / search

    Profile: Dennis Hutchinson

    Dennis Hutchinson, Associate Professor in the Law School and editor since 1981 of the Supreme Court Review, is a nationally known expert on constitutional law and legal rhetoric -- his opinions on the High Court seem to be quoted in the New York Times almost as much as those of the Court itself. But unlike the nine judges, Hutchinson gets to break from the momentous problems facing our country in order to deal with the more enjoyable, if equally momentous, problems facing undergraduates in the College in his role as Master of the New Collegiate Division, a position he has held since 1992.

    The New Collegiate Division is the place for courses and programs that span the disciplines rather than fall under a specific division. Faculty members from a range of disciplinary areas organize and staff creative concentration programs, including Fundamentals: Issues & Texts; Law, Letters & Society; Environmental Studies; and Tutorial Studies.

    In leading the program, Hutchinson undoubtedly puts to use his experience dealing with complex issues -- and complex people. After receiving his J.D. from the University in 1970, he served as clerk for U.S. Circuit Court Judge Elbert Tuttle, for Supreme Court Justice Byron White and for retired Supreme Court Justice William Douglas.

    His experience also apparently serves him well in the classroom -- he received the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1984 and the Amoco Foundation Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Teaching in 1992. What's new in the New Collegiate Division? Well, we've made two changes -- one addition and one subtraction. We've added Environmental Studies as a concentration, under the direction of Ted Steck. In my opinion, this is one of the best environmental studies programs in the country. Unlike most programs, we feel that a student can't understand the environment unless she or he has a real grasp of both science and political economy. Our students don't just dabble in something that seems like a passing fad. Unfortunately, we have had to drop Analysis of Ideas & Methods.

    No more Ideas & Methods? But that was one of the great undergraduate majors in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a great program, and when Wayne Booth [the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus] was teaching, it had a focus that was tremendous. But like a lot of New Collegiate Division "traditions," it was only as good as the people interested in it. Times change, interests change, and a lot of Ideas & Methods-style work is being done by students in the Fundamentals program. And there is a lot of precedent in the NCD for change -- for example, the PERL [Politics, Economics, Rhetoric & Law] program was replaced by Law, Letters & Society. We survived that, and we're still a thriving division.

    What is the NCD's commitment to interdisciplinary studies? Everyone seems to be emphasizing them now. How will the NCD keep pace? The goal of the division is not to support interdisciplinary studies or to guarantee program development. Our goal is much more modest and emphatically non-imperial: We exist to provide a home for experimentation. One's discipline is secondary to one's intellectual curiousity and commitment. If the result is a physicist teaching Thucydides or a physician teaching James Joyce or a chemist teaching environmental biology, we have succeeded. If there are enough scholars with complementary interests, a program may develop, but even if it does not, we have fulfilled our fundamental ambition with each successful course we support.

    Does the New Collegiate Division appeal to today's students? It seems that many students want to graduate early with more "traditional" majors. There are two answers. First, we really don't care. By this I mean that this is not a market-driven concentration. If we have 70 students per year or 150 students, it doesn't matter. Second, we find that a lot of students are ahead of professors in understanding what the real world is all about. That's fine, if that is what the student wants to do. We currently have two NCD graduates now in medical school who majored in Law, Letters & Society. We have another one in film school. But the NCD is not a pre-professional school. There are a lot of different possibilities for Chicago students besides professional school. I don't feel I've done my job here until at least one student comes up to me after class, or after an entire Law, Letters & Society program, and says, "I'm never going to step inside of a law school again. I'm going to do something else with my life."

    In an earlier Chronicle interview, you claimed that you divide your time equally, "75 percent on undergraduates and 75 percent on law students." Is this still the case? That's still true. But I love teaching undergraduates, especially second-years. That is the critical year, when a student is really beginning to apply new analytical techniques to whatever seems truly engaging as a potential "major," for lack of a better world. A student is just beginning to master a discipline. And, of course, this is happening at the same time that the student has just made the change from "older high-school student" to "young college student," with all the responsibility that requires and implies. I am thrilled to have the responsibility of dealing with and, I hope, helping them.

    -- Jeff Makos